The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Five Finds on Friday: Courtenay Tyler


Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Courtenay Tyler, co-founder of Tilman’s, which has lots of news this week. First, building on the success of the shop’s pop-ups, Tilman’s is launching a takeout menu. Today through Monday, from 12-6pm, guests will have the option of taking their order to-go or enjoying it “picnic style” on the patio. In addition to food and wine, there will be cocktails like Negronis, martinis, and sangria. Pre-ordering is preferred, but walk-ins are also welcome. Next, COVID-19 be damned, Tilman’s is planning a sister restaurant for later this year. In the former home to Tin Whistle Pub, Tonic will be a cafe and bar, with a patio and outdoor bar, offering small plates of vegetables, seafood, and fresh sandwiches, including house roast beef. Stay tuned for details and an opening date, likely this summer. Tyler’s picks, which focus on takeout and delivery options in the Culture of Takeout:

1) Tuna Avocado Carpaccio at Now & Zen. “This is probably the one dish in Charlottesville that I crave the most. It’s packed with big chunks of fresh tuna, avocado, and my favorite, tobiko. The wasabi dressing is always light, and the salad is perfectly dressed. My husband and I will wait in line for all of Chef Toshi’s small plates, but this is always the first thing that we order.”

2) Deonjang Jjigae at Maru. “Steven and Kay Kim are my next door neighbors at Tilman’s, and boy, did I luck out in that respect. They are incredibly nice. Kay has a sharp wit, and best of all Steven is an amazing chef. I love this Korean miso stew (don’t ask me how to pronounce it). It’s a big umami bomb, which I love. It has tofu and veggies and is a little spicy, and I always get it with clams. It comes with their homemade banchan, which has kim chi and other interesting things I can’t identify until I ask. I’m really happy if there’s pickled burdock that day.”

3) Any Soup at Bizou. “I have no idea how every single soup I have had from Bizou is amazing, but it is. Their shrimp bisque is actually the very first meal I ate here in Charlottesville, when I moved here in 2014. A mention on their specials board will definitely make me stop in. They have the butternut squash bisque on their to-go menu this week, and they are on my list for take-out. When things were ‘normal,’ they provided a much needed respite after a long day at Tilman’s. I enjoy sitting at that bar, and chatting with Rachel about her wine list. She has a great palate and point of view. And, she writes the best wine descriptions in town.”

4) Triple Citrus Pie at The Pie Chest. “Rachel’s pies aren’t super fancy. They are simple, and homey, and made with love, and in that, reflect Rachel’s personality. Her triple citrus is sublime. That texture! It’s such a treat.”

5) Chocolate Gelato at Splendora’s. “PK’s chocolate gelato is like no other. Deep, dark, intense. It may sound plain, but I promise you, it is not. It’s dangerous that PK is now delivering. All I have to do is call or text, and next thing you know I have my fix.”



Five Finds on Friday: Liz Nabi


Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Liz Nabi of Alight Flower Farm, whose beautiful Spring flowers have been brightening lives of seclusion for weeks. They are available for delivery through Schuyler Greens and carry-out from Foods of All Nations. Nabi’s picks:

1) Vegetable Board at The Alley Light. “We don’t get out for date night often, but when we do, The Alley Light is our go-to. From the intimate atmosphere to the delicious drinks (the mule for me, the gazossa for him), it’s a winner. But, it’s the Vegetable Board that’s kept us coming back since they opened. The whole platter of seasonal veggies in so many variations – pickled, roasted, marinated, raw – is an adventure.”

2) Brioche Feuilletée at MarieBette. “Weekends in the off-season, we walk to MarieBette for pastries and La Colombe coffee. I love the brioche feuilletée – the flakiness contrasts with the denseness of the chocolate and hazelnut, topped off with a dusting of granulated sugar. It can’t be beat (well, unless the filling of the day is vanilla cloud creme).”

3) Moules Frites Mariniere at Public Fish & Oyster. “For nights out with friends, we head to Public. Steamed mussels, broth, and fries. What’s not to love?”

4) Vegetable Lasagna from Mona Lisa Pasta and Molasses Cookies from Breadworks. “Before COVID-19, when we had company coming and didn’t have time to cook, we loved to grab a lasagna from Mona Lisa Pasta’s freezer and then walk across the lot to Breadworks for cookies (an assortment for the guests, but with plenty of molasses for us).”

5) Waje Sushi and Gazpacho at Foods of All Nations. “There’s ‘grocery’ sushi and then there’s Waje Sushi – fresh, buttery salmon and perfect rice every time, very reasonably priced. We can’t wait for summer because that means that Foods’ house-made gazpacho will be back in the grab-and-go section. Refreshing and finishes with a nice kick.”


The Timeless Passion for Service: Why Restaurants Will Be Back

Fleurie plate

Photo by Tom McGovern

There is no sugar-coating it. COVID-19 has devastated restaurants.

An industry with margins as thin as restaurants simply cannot withstand a drop in revenue as long as the one COVID-19 has caused. Worse, there is no end in sight. Even as state governments ease restrictions, restaurateurs know that the math does not add up. Restaurant economics require full spaces. Limited capacity could be a death sentence.

Some say that COVID-19 will change the industry forever. Trends that already existed will only accelerate: downscale, takeout, and fast casual. Full-service restaurants, they say, are all but dead. “It’s as if aliens came from outer space and decided to totally destroy restaurants,” said chef and restaurateur David Chang. “I’m not being hyperbolic in any way. Without government intervention, there will be no service industry.”

On the one hand, it would be foolish to understate the impact of COVID-19. Here in Charlottesville, icons have already closed permanently. Nationwide, thousands more have closed, and the industry lost an estimated $80 billion through April. Even among restaurants that survive, many will alter their models, at least temporarily. Takeout programs will need to offset drops in on-premise dining.

And yet, has COVID-19 really changed restaurants forever? Are the ‘pivots to a new normal’ permanent? Fifty years from now, how will the History of Restaurants record 2020? The year everything changed? Or, a temporary deviation?

Never for Money, Always for Love

In all of my years writing about restaurants, one lesson stands out. I call it The Davidson Rule of Restaurants: “There are only two kinds of restaurants in the world: those with love, and all the rest.” Usually, it is easy to tell the difference. If the people who run a restaurant have a genuine love of hospitality – of taking care of people – you will know it from the food, the service, the entire experience.

For the people behind our favorite restaurants, serving others is their love. It’s in their blood. They go into the industry not for money, but rather for a love of caring for guests from the minute they walk through the door.

Prune’s Gabrielle Hamilton in the New York Times:

Like most chefs who own these small restaurants that have now proliferated across the whole city, I’ve been driven by the sensory, the human, the poetic and the profane — not by money or a thirst to expand . . . I still thrill when the four-top at Table 9 are talking to one another so contentedly that they don’t notice they are the last diners, lingering in the cocoon of the wine and the few shards of dark chocolate we’ve put down with their check.

Hamilton longs to create a cocoon. That longing is one of the two basic human conditions that underlie restaurants’ very existence: the passion to serve. The other is the passion to be served — the longing to linger in Hamilton’s cocoon.

And, here’s the thing about those two human conditions: they are timeless.

They have survived world wars, plagues, pandemics, and even sitcoms. And, it seems hard to imagine that they will not survive this. Yes, COVID-19 has decimated restaurants. Yes, the pandemic has ripped off the Band-Aid and exposed to the public what restaurateurs have known for decades: that their industry perpetually teeters on the edge of sustainability. And yes, consumers may be slow to resume enjoying restaurants the way they have for centuries. But, no matter the effects of COVID-19, it cannot change human nature. It cannot unwire the passion people have to serve others and the comfort people take from being served.

It’s Not All About the Food

When I first became passionate about restaurants, I was among those who believed that food is all that matters. Whether at a fine dining restaurant or at a strip mall dive, I would go anywhere for my food fix. I recall scoffing at guides like Zagat, which would assign equal weight to Food, Decor, and Service. I was a disciple of Metropolitain – the trailblazing Charlottesville restaurant founded three decades ago on the premise: “what if it’s all about the food?”

Over time, though, my view of restaurants evolved. While food quality remained paramount, I came to appreciate pleasures beyond the mere sensation that food creates on one’s tongue. Yes, part of what restaurants do is dazzle with culinary artistry.  But, that’s just one part of what they do.

Imagine in the future a technology that could instantaneously transport to our dinner table a delicious meal prepared by a world-class chef. No delivery person. No wait. No fight for parking.

What a gift. Right? Well, yes. But, would even that end restaurants?

I expect not.

As convenient as the trappings of the Culture of Takeout may be — smartphone apps with one-click ordering, food delivered to your doorstep — you cannot build Hamilton’s cocoon from plastic takeout containers. It’s like trying to get blood from a stone. Contactless takeout may help slow a virus. But, in doing so, it removes the very thing we seek when dining out: contact. It’s a “unique kind of human contact,” restaurant historian Andrew Haley says of the connection that dining out provides.  Which is to say, it has no substitute.

The pain is real. But, so is the human passion to serve —  and to be served. Restaurants will be back.